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23rd Feb 2020

US cables give pointers for EU sanctions on Syria

A fresh cache of leaked US cables has put the spotlight on four Syrian regime money-men not yet targeted by the EU's punitive measures.

The diplomatic notes, published by WikiLeaks in recent days, date from 2006 to 2009 and discuss ways to hurt President Bashar Assad over his suspected role in the assassination of pro-Western politician Rafik Harriri in Lebanon in 2005.

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  • Asma Assad (l) at a state dinner in Paris in 2008. Her father is said by US sources to be hiding regime money (Photo: elysee.fr)

With EU countries currently in the process of expanding their blacklist of 35 people and four companies due to the ongoing killings in Syria, the US dispatches point to Fawas Akhras, Morthada Dandashi, Nabil Kuzbari and Zuhair Sahloul as playing a role in regime attempts to evade international pressure.

Akhras is a London-based cardiologist and the father of Assad's glamour-loving British-born wife, Asma. "Contacts in the banking sector have commented on the large amount of funds that have begun to move recently through his accounts ... He is suspected of being another avenue used by Assad to stash funds abroad," a cable dated 2008 by senior US diplomat Michael Corbin says.

Sahloul is dubbed "the most important black-market money changer in Syria" who helped to stabilise the Syrian pound during a crash in 2005. "Sahloul moves Assad's money using his own network and his access to hawalis [Islamic money-transfer networks] worldwide. A Sahloul intimate bragged to us recently that Sahloul could move $10 million anywhere in the world in 24 hours," the cable adds.

Kuzbari is described as a Vienna-based businessman who helps to hide money for Rami Makhlouf, the regime's main financier (Makhlouf is already on the EU sanctions list): "In addition to lobbying European politicians to engage the Assad regime, Kuzbari reportedly uses his contacts in the Austrian business and banking circles to move regime assets abroad."

Dandashi is a Dubai-based Syrian expatriate said in a separate cable by US diplomat Todd Holmstrom to be in a similar line of work. "[Makhlouf] deposited significant sums under Dandashi's name in the Damascus branch of the Lebanese Byblos Bank," the dispatch notes.

The cable adds that "Makhlouf has also opened accounts under different names in Lebanon, Greece, Turkey, and possibly Cyprus."

The additional EU measures are due this week. The EU and US are meanwhile upping diplomatic pressure ahead of a United Nations Security Council meeting on Syria on Wednesday (10 August).

The White House in a communique on Friday said France, Germany and the US condemn "Assad's continued use of indiscriminate violence against the Syrian people" after the three leaders spoke in a telephone conference.

The leaked US dispatches also underline rivalries inside the ruling clique - experts, such as the International Crisis Group's Peter Harling, say that a putsch is the most likely way for Assad to go.

One cable notes that "intimates of various regime pillars (including the Makhloufs) approached us about post-Bashar possibilities" already in 2006 before the current crisis began.

Another 2008 dispatch cites French diplomat Boris Boillon as saying that President Assad's own brother, Mahir Assad, is a dark horse who in 2008 organised the murder of one rival, military chief Muhammad Sleiman: "French information was that the hit was ... 'classic' and 'Mafia-like' with police stopping traffic in the immediate vicinity, bodyguards looking the other way, and the assailant pumping a slug into Sleiman's head."

The cables add that President Assad fears Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former regime member living in exile in Lebanon who has ties to Syrian securiy services.

With the EU opting to leave Syrian foreign minister Walid Moallem off its sanctions list in order to keep diplomatic channels open, the dispatches indicate that he is not to be trusted.

"[Syrian] officials at every level lie. They persist in a lie even in the face of evidence to the contrary. They are not embarrassed to be caught in a lie," a 2009 cable says.

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